CNN has been a world leader in online news and information delivery since 1980, with over 4,000 news professionals around the globe. When Amazon added the flash briefing skill API to the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), the media outlet created a flash briefing skill of its own to deliver CNN’s top new stories of the day.
Almost immediately after launching the flash briefing skill, CNN tasked its digital product team, including Joshua Silverboard, senior director for CNN’s digital product management, with building an even more engaging news experience for Alexa. The resulting custom skill leveraged CNN’s vast audio and video content resources and gave listeners better control over the news topics they receive. The CNN skill launched just a few weeks before the November 2016 US election, providing Alexa users with near real-time coverage of the U.S. presidential race.
“We chose Alexa because it was the most mature voice technology out there,” says Silverboard. “Alexa is one distribution channel where our audience was already starting to appear, but it was also where we believed it would be in the future. That's where we saw the value.”
However, delivering recorded audio and video content meant the skill’s response could be delayed while loading large media files. Now, CNN has updated the skill with Progressive Response, a new capability in ASK. With Progressive Response, CNN delivers a more engaging, responsive and natural experience, even when loading video clips for Echo Show and Fire devices.
From Proof of Concept to News on Demand
Silverboard wanted the updated CNN skill to give users flexibility in the stories they want to hear. The first use case would provide a roundup of the day’s top news stories, similar to the flash briefing skill. Saying “Alexa, ask CNN for the latest news” delivers an audio segment of the top stories of the day, created from CNN’s TV broadcast coverage and then curated by the digital editorial team.
The other use cases, however, were all about giving the user more choice. The second use case lets users ask about any current news-specific topic covered by CNN on TV, such as “Alexa, ask CNN for the latest news.” And finally, if the user doesn’t have a specific topic in mind, “Alexa, open CNN” presents a list of trending news topics and other options from which the listener can pick.
To build the CNN skill, Silverboard assembled a project team with experts across product, technology, editorial, and design. To allow for the flexibility in topics across the use cases, the team designed and built a capability called “the watercooler,” modeled after the way people talk about current events around the proverbial watercooler. Based on the CNNgo platform, it involves cutting broadcast content into segments shortly after being aired, then allowing editors to tag their segment with topics and other searchable information. This tagging allows the skill to quickly search and retrieve the most current topic-based content on demand.
Delivering More Sophisticated Content While Upping User Engagement
Voice is just one component of news delivery. As multimodal devices such as Echo Show and Echo Spot became available, Silverboard wanted to include news video in the user experience.
“When Amazon introduced Echo Show, we were able to take the audio slices we were already cutting and add a video component on top,” says Silverboard. “From a live stream, we could create audio assets, extract still images, or cut video from a live segment, all in close to real time.”
But the longer the news segments, the larger the files to be loaded, especially when images and video are involved. This presented a challenge because, at the time, skills needed to wait for all processing to be completed before delivering any payload to the user. This left users waiting and wondering what was happening while skills processed their experiences. Beyond that, Alexa’s certification guidelines recommend that screen skills return a response within two seconds.
“When you're having a conversation with somebody, including Alexa, you expect that conversation to feel pretty real time,” says Silverboard. “Delayed responses can be awkward in a conversation, and they can be awkward and frustrating in an Alexa skill.”
By using the new Progressive Response capability in the Alexa Skills Kit, CNN’s updated skill keeps a user engaged, even if processing the full response takes a few seconds due to the size of the video and audio files.
For example, a user might say “Alexa, ask CNN for the latest news." Before, the skill could take several seconds to play the content as it queried and loaded the segment files. With Progressive Response, the skill can respond almost immediately with interstitial content like “Fetching the latest news” followed by the segment title and air time while it continues processing the associated audio and video content files in the background. After using the Progressive Response API, the average latency for these invocations on Echo Show was reduced to 1.4 seconds, representing a 30 percent improvement.
“With the updated CNN skill, we wanted to answer ‘yes’ to three questions,” says Silverboard. “One, is it fast? Two, did it hear what I actually said? And three, is the content new? We saw Progressive Response as a way to ensure we could answer these questions, and that makes for a more natural, conversational experience.”
Faster, More Conversational Interactions are Crucial to Your Alexa Skills
The updated CNN skill is live now, and the data shows the Progressive Response capability is having a positive impact on the user experience. According to Silverboard, the 30 percent reduction in latency on Echo Show is a big deal in a world where more and more people don’t get their news sitting in front of a television. He describes how his won’t move 20 feet to turn on a TV, yet will sit at the counter for hours, talking to Echo Show and watching videos on it. As customers flock from traditional media to voice first, they’ll all expect a fast, fluid response to their requests, regardless of the media they are consuming.
“The draw of voice—it makes a lot of sense,” says Silverboard. “It’s just easier and more natural to get the personalized content you want by asking for it, rather than having to type or flip through channels. Progressive Response helps us ensure the interaction is smooth and responsive, and to take that natural language experience even further than before.”
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